Before you’re misled, Bauls are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal. The Bauls are a very heterogeneous group with many sects, but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They can often be identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments.
The Duggi is a percussion instrument. Often the “Ektara” is played using one hand & the “Duggi” is played by the other and all in all, a very colourful display of song.The ‘Rasa Lila’ dance focuses the divine in the form of Radha and Krishna and is considered, by them, to reside in the soul located on the altar of the heart within the human body. Bauls are lovers of Hari, of the divine, ecstatic mystical lovers, they are honey bees gathering the rasa (juice) grinding this juice into the pure love of God intoxication.
The word ‘mystic’ has a certain enchanting quality to the people who possess it. Some spend their lives portraying an enticing being under shadows but never truly get consumed by it because let’s face it; it’s not a fashion statement or some kind of popularity ladder. One cannot be mysterious and then boast about being mysterious at the same time now can they? The ones who truly are ‘mystic’ are seldom heard of on a global level, yet leave their mark on society like a very quick-fire hurricane with serene repercussions and such people/ groups do exist
Enter, Oh Bauls of Bengal!
The Influence-Tagore: Dylan: The Rolling Stones.
How often do you find those three names in a single sentence together? The binding factor here is the music of Baul which pioneered to global levels with the help of Rabindranath Tagore, who was heavily influenced by this music, and Purna Das Baul who is credited with bringing Baul music to a Global stage. His son Babu and his family played on stage in London for the Rolling Stone’s concerts in the 1970’s for thousands. The Rolling Stones also produced an album called ‘Jai Bangla’. Allen Ginsberg, an American poet, was a firm believer in Babu’s grandfather and calling him the ‘8th wonder’. Ginsberg composed a few songs with Bob Dylan and the band in 1985 went on a tour showcasing the Baul family along with the others.
The Bauls of Bengal are wandering musicians who are known for their unconventional lifestyle and an ‘avant-garde’ approach to religion. I say avant-garde because they symbolize a very fresh approach towards seeking a higher power. Baul is not a creed but a path which offers salvation as its eventual fruit. Their roots are not only deep but ancient and their thought has mixed elements of Tantra, Sufi Islam, Vaishnavism and Buddhism. The music is one of the prime forms of expression in the Baul culture and is so simple and down to earth, that the meanings of the words are clearer than water, which lends to its impact.
The true beauty of the Bauls lies in their free-spirited nature. They do not care for rules and regulations pertaining to the orthodox religions they encounter and remain staunch to the fact that they are ‘moksha’ or liberation seekers. Their music was almost like the newspaper before the printed version, except with a twist of rhymes and a healthy use of the imagination. You can almost envisage them dancing with a certain animalistic virility due to their thought and their unshackled nature. What a sight!
The Baul costume consists of a short waist-cloth and a brightly coloured “Alkhalla” (robes with a patchwork of coloured fabrics). They don’t cut their hair, but coil it neatly atop the head in a bun & do not believe in physical expressions of divinity such as statues, temples or mosques.
The lyrics of their song intertwine a deep sense of mysticism and an inspired longing for oneness with the divine entity. An important part of their philosophy is “Deha tatta” which means thoughts related to the body rather than the classic spirituality of the mind. In plain terms, they seek the divinity in human beings through their songs and rhymes. Several Metaphysical topics are dwelled upon in a very humble fashion and simple words. They stress upon the fact of remaining unattached and unconsumed by the pleasures of life even while enjoying them. They also do not mean that the body is the focus of everything. To them we are all a gift of divine power and the body is a temple, the music being the path to connect to that power.
The music is a particular type of folk song which carries influences of the Hindu Bhakti movements as well as the Sufi songs of Kabir. Mysticism is preached whole heartedly and represents a long heritage of the same through song and dance. Bauls are lovers of Hari, of the divine, ecstatic mystical lovers, they are honey bees- gathering and grinding the juice into the pure love of God intoxication. Such are the levels of emotion that are displayed during the singing and dancing.
The songs are usually sung by a solo performer, accompanied on a one-stringed instrument called “Ektara” or Gopi Chand, which is a one stringed musical instrument, is the Bauls symbol of unity and peace. Other instruments, extensively used by the Bauls are khamak, dotara, ghungur, nupur and duggi. Ghungur & nupurs are anklets with bells that ring melodiously while the person wearing them dances. family played on stage in London for the Rolling Stone’s concerts in 1971, 72 and 78 in Hyde Park in front of thousands. The Rolling Stones also produced an album called ‘Jai Bangla’. Allen Ginsberg, an American poet, was a firm believer in Babu’s grandfather and calling him the ‘8th wonder’. Ginsberg composed a few songs with Bob Dylan and the band in 1985 went on a tour showcasing the Baul family along with the others.
Edward Dimock Jr. in his The Place of the Hidden Moon (1966) writes: “Rabindranath Tagore put the Bauls on a higher-than-respectable level by his praise of the beauty of their songs and spirit, and by his frank and proud acknowledgement of his own poetic debt to them.” The Lineage of the Bauls of Bengal also inspired many other successful poets, playwrights and songwriters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
That Lasting Tune:
From Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to America’s poet Allen Ginsberg; The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, Gandhiji, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Osho, Amandamayi Ma, Ramakrishna Dev, Shri SitaRam Omkarnath, Mother Teresa and oh so many more, this Baul music has inspired and touched so many people leaving milestones wherever they tread. They didn’t even spare my mother who lived in Kolkata for 10 years and explained to me their story.
The Baul way of living certainly has critics and sceptics who believe that these ‘wanderers’ rave and dance into oblivion. But what of the fact that they have amalgamated the thoughts of World religions into such a unique and brilliant facet, that one can only sit back and wonder about the possibilities. Music is something that feels its way into every living soul and the Bauls believe in a formless God that dances. With the Ektara in one hand and the brightly coloured Alkhalla flaring about, they will sing and dance, dance they’re way into the sunset of salvation.
“Baul of Bengal, I sing for all, Blue Danube is Jamuna, Hudson my Vrindavan, see me in Kolkata, Toronto, London, Hear my call Baul of Bengal, Same man many names, same player, many games, Love is magic to win at life…Hear my call O Baul of Bengal.“
Photography by AmanPreet Kaur